Saturday, March 7, 2020

Proposal Smarts: Don't Waste Your Advantage as the Incumbent

I've reviewed a few proposals in recent months where the incumbent firm failed to win the next phase of the project or contract. So they asked me to do a postmortem. There are a variety of reasons why an incumbent might lose that have little to do with the proposal. Yet there were some common deficiencies in these proposals that probably helped contribute to the outcome.

I've written many posts here about how to build lasting client relationships. This post will focus on leveraging your strengths as the incumbent in your proposal. The fact is that among the proposals I've seen, incumbents typically fail to take full advantage of their position. Hopefully this post will help you better protect your turf in future proposals.

As the incumbent, you should have two distinct advantages: (1) you know the most about the client's project or program and (2) you have an established relationship with the client. Your proposal should reflect these advantages. Yet I'm amazed how often incumbent proposals fail to capitalize on these. Here are some of the shortcomings I've seen recently:
  • The incumbent wasn't sure which technical solution the client preferred, even though the firm had done all the upfront work. How can this happen? Believe me, it happens!
  • The incumbent failed to demonstrate in their proposal that they had any special insight into the substantial nontechnical issues associated with the project.
  • The incumbent said nothing of their strong relationship with third-party stakeholders who were crucial to the success of the project.
  • The incumbent wrote nothing in their proposal that showed familiarity with working with the client—how they would communicate, collaborate, share decision making, address inevitable problems, etc.
I could go on, but these examples will suffice. In fact, these are the most common omissions I've seen. So if your firm is the incumbent, what are some steps you can take to make your proposal darn near unbeatable?

Address any lingering service problems or relationship concerns. In some cases, the mere fact that you're having to write a proposal for the next phase is a sign of trouble. Be proactive in addressing concerns before they become significant problems. Be sure you know where you stand (are you soliciting feedback from the client?) and promptly take steps to correct any shortcomings the client points out.

Develop your proposal with the client in advance of the RFP. When you're the incumbent, there's no excuse for having to guess which solution or alternative the client might favor. Yet I've seen this happen on several occasions. Begin working on your proposal early, seeking the client's input and agreement on your strategy. This advance access to the client should be a very difficult obstacle for your competitors to overcome.

Make your familiarity advantage obvious in your proposal. Don't fall into the trap of simply preparing a rote response to the RFP. Include the distinct project perspectives and insights that only your firm can claim. You should have a better understanding of the client's biggest concerns, highest priorities, most critical success factors. You know about the hidden risks, the biggest challenges, the greatest frustrations, what has transpired to date and how it impacted the project. Talk about these things in your proposal!

Be honest about your vulnerabilities and tackle them head on. Some incumbents are reluctant to acknowledge these concerns in their proposal. But I prefer being open and proactive. Does the client have some doubts about your ability to take the project to the next stage? Don't avoid this in your proposal; instead make your case for why you're the most qualified to continue the work. Have there been some problems in your relationship with the client? Take responsibility for it, and describe the steps you've taken to prevent such problems from happening again.

Write about how you'll tend the working relationship. Firms rarely say much in their proposals about the relationship with the client, although this is a critical success factor. Why the omission? In part because RFPs usually don't ask firms to address the matter. As the incumbent, you have a distinct advantage here. So be sure to describe in your proposal how you'll manage an effective working relationship. There's a good chance no one else will, and an even better chance that no one else could do so as well as you.

Make it personal. Most A/E firms avoid using first and second person in their proposals, which helps rob them of the human element that makes for effective persuasion. Don't make this mistake, especially as the incumbent where you have an established relationship with the client. Writing in third person as the incumbent comes across as stilted, impersonal, and just weird, to be honest. Don't forget who your audience is. You're not writing to the faceless masses, but to people you know.

So don't squander the built-in advantages you have as the incumbent. Your proposal should clearly reflect the distinct insights and familiarity you have. But because firms often are negligent in nurturing client relationships and leveraging their advantages, competitors have a better chance than you might think to steal clients away. For tips on how to displace the incumbent, check out this earlier post.